Paper-thin cherry blossoms, bleeding hearts, tulips, golden daffs – it seems everything is in bloom nowadays, including those vine-grown buds that will give rise to plump wine grapes come autumn. Following a summer’s dose of sun, some three million tons of grapes will be harvested in California alone this September. For true oenophiles, there’s only one way to really embrace the event: Sleeves rolled up, plucking the soon-to-be-fermented fruit alongside the veterans.
Now in its fifth year, the Sonoma County Grape Camp brings together the region’s top grape growers, vintners, and chefs (an Iron Chef contestant participated last year) for a one-of-a-kind immersion in the annual harvest. From gathering grapes in the dusty fields during the crisp, early-morning hours to concocting your own artisanal label, campers learn the ins and outs of what makes for a successful vintage – while also sipping their way from vineyard to vineyard.
As its name implies, this is no cookie cutter, jump-on-the-bus winery tour. For three days, campers are treated like honorary members of the crew. Clippers in hand, they gingerly snip and deposit fat bunches of grapes into plastic bins while elbow-to-elbow with the pros, and jockey for a spot on the conveyor belt to help sort fruit bound for the crusher. Afternoons are reserved for lessons – and picnic lunches amid the grapes – in proper food pairings and the art of blending popular Sonoma varietals like rich cabs and pinots.
But the best lessons gleaned come from the camp’s “counselors,” the people who call this California wine country home. Locals like Ulises Valdez, who worked his way up from pruner to the manager of more than 800 acres of precious grapes, and most recently, the owner of Valdez Family Winery. And the Sonoma-based foodies who’ve been tapped to whip up the camp’s gourmet grub, such as married chefs Duskie Estes and John Steward of Zazu and Bovolo fame. He’s honed his salumi skills with Mario Batali; she’s had a cameo on, you guessed it, The Next Iron Chef.
The 2011 camp (September 20-22) costs $1,850 per person, per couple ($150 single supplement), including accommodations at the Kenwood Inn and Spa, tastings, transportation during camp, and meals like a welcome dinner prepared by chef Douglas Keene of the Michelin-starred Cyrus Restaurant (www.sonomagrapecamp.com).
Starting this month, visitors to Sonoma can also canvass five new vineyards as part of a series of free, self-guided tours launched last year. The Sonoma Vineyard Adventures walks now include Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Landmark Vineyards, Michel-Schlumberger Winery, Schug Carneros Estate Winery, and Stryker Sonoma Winery. Visitors get detailed guides for each estate, with highlights marked along the route. No reservations required!